Taking Politics Personally
I’ve been finding respite from daily reports of political corruption and deepening incivility in a biography of John and Abigail Adams (First Family by Joseph J. Ellis). Among the threads the writer traces through the Adams’ long, complicated and remarkable lives is the story of their long, complicated and remarkable friendship with Thomas Jefferson. Adams and Jefferson served together at the Continental Congress, worked together on the Declaration of Independence, entered American diplomatic service in Europe together after the Revolution, and regarded one another, despite different political philosophies and alliances, with respect and affection.
The bond of friendship was weakened, though, when, just before Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, Adams hastily appointed a number of people to political office who would be likely to oppose some of Jefferson’s most closely held objectives. From 1801 to 1811, throughout Jefferson’s eight years in office and beyond, they ceased writing to one another. At that point, through the intervention of a mutual friend, they resumed the friendship and the lively, articulate correspondence they maintained until they both died on the same day — July 4, 1826 — the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams’ touching final words are well known: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” They were the more poignant because Jefferson had, in fact, died several hours earlier.
The story of their friendship seems pertinent to me these days. Partisan disputes are as public and divisive as I’ve ever seen them. A long tradition of vigorous, passionate and civil debate of the sort Lincoln had with Douglas and even Nixon with Kennedy has given way to unsubstantiated accusaations and, in some corners, vicious tweets. Though pockets of sanity and grace survive, party politics seem dominated by allegation rather than reasoned argument and the “common good” starts to seem like a lost cause. In the midst of this fray, personal friendships are strained by political division.
Some might say it was ever thus: fissures in families with divided party loyalties have cracked open over Thanksgiving dinners; grown children have departed early from visits to parents whose vociferous politics undermine even the best efforts to keep the conversation focused on grandchildren. Friends find their differences so disturbing that book clubs and bridge groups fall apart, or polarize along party lines. Churches lose members. Affiliations affect hiring practices. To an extent, that’s probably true: it was ever thus. But — and perhaps I was naïve on this matter — members of all parties, including the two big ones, have generally seemed able to discuss pressing public issues on their merits, and have recognized the importance of being able to do so, careful not to sacrifice the last modicum of Congressional collegiality for the pleasure of making a bitter point.
I imagine I’m not alone in having had to consider more carefully over the past year or two — or the past decade — how and whether to broach political differences with friends who differ. Most of us, I imagine, tend to foster friendships among fairly like-minded people. But sometimes we make friends who turn out to be “odd bedfellows.” We enjoy their humor, admire their skills, carpool with their children, or sing with them in community chorus. We find ourselves spending time together with real pleasure, as long as political differences aren’t mentioned. After a while, however, what began as tact starts to feel like a gag rule. Especially when the issues at hand are so large and looming, so consequential, and so incessantly on the front page: climate change and regulation of fossil fuel industries; social services and their cost; who pays for health care; how schools get funded; who crosses our borders. These are matters many of us take intensely personally. We, and people we love, and people we care about are personally affected by the outcomes and we take personal umbrage at indifference toward or caricature of positions we hold because our and others’ lives depend on them.
I have no particular hope of converting the scattering of friends who share my table but not my political convictions. But I do have a few thoughts about ways to stay at that table and even, perhaps, make it a safe place where differences don’t have to end up either in a blow-up or in bland, insincere neutrality, but can be explored with open hearts and lively, focused, passionate argument. Here are a few ways to get beyond the gag rule that says “Just don’t go there.”
1 — Go there. Ask for a half hour of permission to explore differences and then wade in without apology, asking questions as you go. How the questions are worded makes a big difference. Here’s a hint: it’s not a good idea to start with “How could you possibly…?” They might begin with an acknowledgement: “I know we both know how far apart we are on this issue. I wonder if you could explain to me how you think about this. What you think matters to me because you matter to me.
2. Make an evening of it. Each person might pick a short documentary or a video clip or a passage from an article or book that articulates a position he or she finds convincing. Watch or listen together without comment, and then make a list of four or five honest observations about it that might help your friend see where you part company. It may not change minds, but it’s valuable mental exercise.
3. Or make a week of it. Agree to read some of the Adams-Jefferson letters and see what they have to teach about exploring differences.
4. Have the meta-conversation — a conversation about the conversation. Agree to table the issues themselves for a time and simply to consider what might make it safe to share what you feel and think. Ask yourself and each other, for instance, What are you protecting? What makes it feel risky to offer an opinion? What concerns lie below the anger or fear or anxiety or contempt you may feel about a public figure you find odious or a policy you find wrong-headed? How might we learn to trust one another with our differences?
5. Enter into the silence. Make it deliberate. Meditate together, for instance, or agree to walk in silence for a mile and then venture some piece of the conversation on the way back. Cultivate inner peace together in some way that makes sense to you both. Breathe together. Find a sacred space and sit together in the presence of what speaks of holiness. Listen to chant or Tibetan bells. Let wordlessness heal the pain words have caused.
6. Or consider the words themselves — key words: patriotic; Democrat; Republican; conservative; liberal; left; right. And loaded words: handout; entitlement; social justice; enemy; security; rights; profiteering; empowerment; equality; justice. Without going to the issues, just consider why the words you think of as trigger words are loaded, how you hear them, what they trigger. Again, a good discipline and possibly (imagine this!) fun.
Taking the trouble to and summoning the courage to have the conversation might result not only in deepening friendship but also in clarifying what your own sensitivities and volatilities are really about. I haven’t tried these things in all cases where I differ with people I hold dear, but when I have, the payoff has been gratifying. Trust deepens a little. Tensions relax a little. Laughter happens here and there. Sometimes stories from family history emerge. And a little shoot of trust begins to grow. It’s one way to practice waging peace. It’s worth a try.